Sunday, December 23, 2012

Gift Giving

They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life.1 Timothy 6:18-19

As the days on which the Jews got relief from their enemies, and as the month that had been turned for them from sorrow into gladness and from mourning into a holiday; that they should make them days of feasting and gladness, days for sending gifts of food to one another and gifts to the poor. Esther 9:22

And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh- Matthew 2:11

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. James 1:17

“It's not how much we give but how much love we put into giving.” 
 Mother Teresa

Why does gift giving still remain an omnipresent part of the Christmas season? I personally have always loved the gift part of Christmas. I love the creativity of coming up with gifts for others, coming up with unexpected things people want or wouldn’t buy for themselves, spending the time laughing over a funny gift or smiling over a thoughtful one. Gift giving was always a part of my family’s holiday celebration- and I have learned for some it is more a source of joy than for others. Cynics would say gift giving is just American materialism and consumerism taking over the holiday. Many complain the focus on gifts detracts from the holiday and makes for an uncomfortable obligation of buying gifts for others. Maybe part of that is true- I can see how rushing around worrying about gifts can tear us away from the love and joy of the Christmas celebration.

But I think that is too simple to write off the tradition of gift giving as a part of Christmas. After all, gift giving was a part of the Christmas story from the very start as the wise men brought the nicest of trade goods to Jesus Christ in the manger (see Matthew 2:11). So why give gifts? And how do gifts relate to God and the spirit of Christmas?
Gift Giving

In my opinion, gift giving has historically been a symbol for recognition and appreciation. Gifts in many cultures have functioned as a symbolic exchange between people- groups large and small. Gifts foster unity between people- and represent things such as hospitality, peace, sacrifice and love. Here are some interesting tidbits about global gift giving and traditions surrounding it:

So what do gifts really symbolize? I believe they get at the essence of generosity. See definition below:

generosity [ˌdʒɛˈrɒsɪtɪ]
1. willingness and liberality in giving away one's money, time, etc.; magnanimity
2. freedom from pettiness in character and mind
3. a giving act. 

Of course we can give gifts and not be being that generous. Is giving because you feel obligated to generous? I read a wall street journal article recently about how gift giving often insights more joy in the giver than the receiver. Does this mean gift giving is sometimes selfish? This article I know humbled me- because I know I have given gifts out of the hopes of being recognized or appreciated by others.

Even though this may be the case, I still do believe that gift giving can unlock the spirit of Christmas rather than detract from it. But I think it is not the gifts themselves, but rather the generosity behind them that makes the difference. I think the question is not- what gift should I/could I give this person? But rather- how can I be generous with this person? Gifts can be no doubt one way to do this- by spending a little extra on someone or giving them something that really makes a difference in their lives or brings them joy. Yet I believe there are multiple ways to accomplish sharing generosity at this time of year- maybe by calling a family member or friend you usually wouldn’t, or generously listening to someone rather than talking a lot at them, or maybe by doing most of the Christmas eve dishes. I think generosity is about giving to people in a way that makes a difference for them- not necessarily just in a way that makes us feel good. And this requires the rigor of putting our own egos aside and really being in-tune to those around us. I know this takes effort and is an unfortunately rare mindset for me to be consumed by- what does person x really want/need and how can I provide that for them?

Overall, I think the beauty of Christmas is it is a season of generosity. By being generous with one another- whether through our companionship, acts, words or physical gifts, we are creating a living metaphor for God’s most generous gift to mankind- his son. Jesus was a tangible, real gift- delivered in Bethlehem and wrapped in swaddling clothes. And within Jesus and in so many other ways- God fills our lives with the miraculous- with blessings uncountable and with an outpouring of generosity we could never hope to repay. And our chance to live in these blessings is to a) appreciate God and experience gratitude and b) be generous with others. So during the holiday- we give each other worldly things with love as God gives us divine gifts every day with love. Gifts are the birth and kindling to love, affinity, healing and many other good things, just as Jesus’ life was the birth of new love and affinity between God and mankind.

So my challenge is this- if you are inspired, maybe be generous with someone over the next couple days in a way you usually wouldn’t be. In a way that really makes a difference for someone else, even if it makes you uncomfortable or isn’t your usual way of doing things. I think this may unlock the spirit of Christmas in a new way for you.

And to all my friends and family members and anyone else who may happen to read this message- I hope you have a truly happy and wonderful Christmas- special and memorable in its own right to you and yours. I am grateful for you, the unique difference you make in the lives of others, and the many ways in which the world is lucky to have you in its midst. Thank you for being generous with me by reading this blog. I look forward to future sharing, affinity and conversation with you.

I will close with a link of something that inspires the Christmas spirit in me:

Friday, December 14, 2012

Addiction in Surprising Forms

Addiction [ah-dik´shun]

1. the state of being given up to some habit or compulsion.
2. strong physiological and psychological dependence on a drug or other agent; see alcoholism and drug dependence.
Miller-Keane Encyclopedia and Dictionary of Medicine, Nursing, and Allied Health, Seventh Edition. © 2003 by Saunders, an imprint of Elsevier, Inc. All rights reserved.


Addiction (dik´shn),
n the state of being addicted. Although there is no universally accepted definition, addiction is generally considered a condition involving two factors: (1) a compulsive behavior pattern, and (2) an altered physiologic state that requires continued use of the drug to prevent withdrawal symptoms.
Mosby's Dental Dictionary, 2nd edition. © 2008 Elsevier, Inc. All rights reserved.

And God spake all these words, saying, I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have no other gods before me. (Exodus 20:1-3)

This week my blood work came back from an extensive allergy assessment I had done last month. I talked to my doctor on the phone, and besides still being moderately or highly allergic to 18 different outside sources (molds, horses, dust and pollens to name a few) it also turns out I have a high Candida count and have some sort of allergy to wheat, rye and yeast (aka gluten). The doctor promptly told me that if I want to make a significant difference in my health, I need to at least temporarily forgo all sugar and gluten. The best source to understand what my doctor thinks I have is this:

I don’t think I quite realized how extensively these foods were a part of my diet until I stopped eating them. Almost EVERYTHING I love to eat and indulge in contains gluten or sugar! I had a distinct reaction of: how am I going to live without these? And the problem is- I can go on to eat them all without serious reaction… but it is the build-up of eating gluten and sugar countless times a day that is the issue. For my overall health, for now, I need to cut them out.

Addiction has been a hot topic in my life recently- and I have had multiple conversations with people about either themselves or others in their lives dealing with serious addictions- typical and atypical. My uncle Glenn sent me a profound speech he wrote regarding Jonathan’s addiction and his experience around watching his son ultimately are consumed by it. I hope to post an online link to this article here in the future. One of my favorite quotes from Glenn’s article is this:

“We are all vulnerable to addiction. All of us are born with a tendency
towards an addiction to self. It is the desire to put ourselves first, to please
ourselves, even at the expense of others and even at the expense of hurting
our relationship with God. The bible calls this addiction to self, sin. These
addictions take different forms. Some are alcohol or drug addictions. Others
are addictions to money or sex or food or fame. I have this addiction. You
have this addiction. We are all vulnerable and all in need of healing.”

In my opinion, the inherent and biggest problem with addiction to something is the addict puts that thing in front of all others in their life. They try to balance their addiction with people, jobs, other priorities- but when push comes to shove that need comes first. And in the worst cases, the need for this thing (whether sex, food, drugs, alcohol or a whole other variety of items people get addicted to) overtakes their relationships, integrity, their relationship with God and ultimately their very self-value. This is why addiction kills- because a person can go so far as to put their craving above their own survival. And It is one of the bitterest of evils, because someones addiction renders those people in that person’s life powerless. How do you save someone from themselves… not to mention watch someone destroy their own lives when you love them and find their life worth saving?

 I was in a conversation with a friend who knew something about having a candida imbalance, she said “A good sign of having this is if you regularly crave sugar and grain products”. My reaction to this was- that seems so counterintuitive- Why would the body crave something that is causing it harm? I guess this is the nature of addiction isn’t it? To crave and yearn for something ultimately causing us harm.

What are you addicted to? What are the things you do not want to or do not think you can go without? Are some people addicted to complaining? Feeling sorry for themselves? What about being busy? I believe addiction can come in all sorts of forms we don’t expect. The tricky thing is- there is not something inherently wrong with the things we are addicted to (except arguably drugs). It is just when something like sex or money or whatever else becomes more important to us than other things.

Addiction has given me a new appreciation for the practice of Lent in the Lutheran Tradition. We were encouraged growing up to ‘give up’ something for the 40 days of lent. In college, I remember friends giving up chocolate, facebook and caffeine among other things. The idea as I understand it is to give up that thing in your life for a time to make room for God.

I believe God is the only answer for addiction. You look at statistics on treatment centers for drugs, alcohol and other recoveries and the success rate is so low. If you are to beat the odds of a self-fueled disease, you need something bigger than yourself to be living for and guiding you. And the practical application of putting God first is putting the people in your life first- choosing your relationships over your addiction. It makes sense to me why the 12 step program is the most successful treatment program for alcoholics to date. God is essential for us to be saved from ourselves.

Over the last weeks my experience has not only been colored by other’s experiences of addiction, but has have a taste of my own withdrawal. I do not (or at least hope) I am not heavily addicted to these food items. And maybe one day I will be able to eat sugar and gluten again without it harming my health. And maybe if my doctor by chance is wrong- at least I will have experienced for myself the disappointment of withdrawal from something and be able to relate to others better for it.

And to all of you out there who are dealing with addiction yourself or are supporting someone who is; I know to a small degree the darkness you face. And I wish for you to get to experience new life and freedom. And I pray no matter where you are on your faith journey- consider looking to God. He is your hope for a healthy life on this earth.

Friday, December 7, 2012

The Art of Saying No

11 For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. 12 It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age,
Titus 2:11-12

Some people are very good at saying no to things. They approach offers skeptically, and are able to quickly not commit to multitudes of things. I am on the opposite side of the spectrum of these individuals. I struggle to say no, and more often (unless in highly unusual cases) say Yes. To practically every opportunity, event and chance that comes my way. I also am notorious for saying yes when people ask me to donate money. Partially because I get excited about so many things, that I can see positive opportunity and a window to contribute in so many things! And for my enthusiasm, I do live a very exciting and dynamic life. I love all the things I am involved in, I love excelling and trying new things and making a difference.

And there is some virtue sometimes to being active, busy and involved. Activity can breed courage, a sense of purpose, an ability to do more than what one thought previously possible. It is healthy to be up to things in life, to challenge yourself to move ahead with rigor.

In times of great stress or adversity, it's always best to keep busy, to plow your anger and your energy into something positive. –Lee Iacocca


Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy. –Dale Carnegie


Lately however I have discovered saying yes to everything is leading me astray. By saying yes to so much, I lead myself to be overcommitted, overworked, overwhelmed and overall less effective. By saying yes I cram my schedule with so many things I hardly leave myself a chance to breathe, much less sleep, eat healthy and rest. The quote below unfortunately speaks to my condition:

A man too busy to take care of his health is like a mechanic too busy to take care of his tools. –Spanish Proverb

I sometimes find myself praying- God let it all slow down, let me get through this- when my crazy schedule is not only fully my fault, but also when I do get a chance to breathe, I fill up my time with more things! I am my own worst enemy on this front.

I think my pace in life stems in some ways from a fear of missing out. Fear of failure. Fear of not making a difference in the world. John had the courage to tell me last night (while I was stressed working on something until midnight) that these fears are all fairly self-serving and self-centered. And he is right- as much as I am genuinely excited about giving to others and living my life for God- the way I am living my life and prioritizing my motivations right now is not reflective of this at all. And I don’t always take things on for selfless reasons.
“Beware of the barrenness of a busy life” -Socrates

My stereotypical way of dealing with this problem is to commit to more. To say Yes to other things to try to solve the problem, or to just charge through it and get as much done out of what I have committed to as I can. Really, what I need to start practicing is to say no. To say no to things- and to stop feeding into the fear I would be missing out. The truth is, I will need to learn to say no if I want to lead a great life, to make a genuine difference, to give my life up to God. And I need to realize that part of living my life for God is practicing saying no every day. And in some ways, by saying no to other things I am saying yes to him. To allow myself the space to be filled with things I would not necessarily expect.

In this conversation, I pray for discernment, wisdom, and the courage to live my life differently than how I have been.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Love Letters

“A real love letter is made of insight, understanding, and compassion. Otherwise it's not a love letter. A true love letter can produce a transformation in the other person, and therefore in the world. But before it produces a transformation in the other person, it has to produce a transformation within us. Some letters may take the whole of our lifetime to write.” 

I commandeered my mother’s book club book on the ride down to Chicago for thanksgiving. I was rewarded with one of the more inspiring stories I have read in a long time. Recently released in October, “Proof of Heaven” is the articulate recount of an Atheist Neurosurgeon who became a firm believer in the divine through an unprecedented Near Death experience. One of the many take a ways from the book for me was this quote:

“How do we get closer to (our) genuine, spiritual self? By manifesting love and compassion. Why? Because love and compassion are far more than the abstractions many of us believe them to be. They are real. They are concrete. And they make up the very fabric of the spiritual realm.” –Even Alexander

The above statement makes so much intuitive sense to me. The author is articulating something I believe all humans at their core recognize as truth. Love is what connects us; it is what allows us to conquer what was previously impossible. By expressing love, we are speaking God’s language. We are vibrating at a higher level. Love releases us from the chains and clouds of the ordinary.

Manifesting love and compassion- what does that mean? To me, it means habitually practicing showing affection and care to others- for their sake. It means looking past your ego to the outside world and tending to it and its needs.
This quote plays into a video my sister sent me a couple weeks ago on Gratitude and being a blessing to others. I have attached the link below.

 The line at the end of the video is my favorite- about being a blessing to others through your eyes, your smile and your touch. What simple yet conscious effort we could make during the day. Instead of being wrapped in our own thoughts- looking up and smiling into a strangers eyes.  

Loving others occurs to me as a puzzle or game. There are so many ways to contribute to others! Folding laundry, giving hugs, paying someone a genuine compliment, fixing something for someone, making someone a meal, calling someone you wouldn’t talk to every day. Sometimes, the biggest contribution to someone else is letting them contribute to you (I know that one is difficult for me). One of the ways I tangibly love contributing to others is by writing letters. Inspired letters sharing your thoughts and inquiring where the other party is in life. Or thank you notes- writing down by hand that you really appreciate someone in your life. I am lucky to know several people in my life who are fantastic letter writers- a letter from them in the mail is such a day-maker.

I believe one of the purest and beautiful expressions of writing is the creation of Love Letters. Telling someone they are beautiful, appreciated and loved by you- that communication allows for some of the richest and most inspiring prose. Writing a love letter is doing one’s best to articulate something purely good that is beyond words. The content of love letters includes themes of hope, joy, wonder, gratitude, humility, devotion… many of the more important themes of the human experience. Also, consider love letters in the context of this bible verse: “If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” –Corinthians 13:1. This verse makes me think that love letters are essential because they may be where truth is really captured.
Old love letter — Stock Photo #5903918
The bible in some ways is a collection of Love Letters to God. Literally many different writers sat down to write about loving him through contemplating him, examining him, sharing him and expressing their gratitude for him. Love is undoubtedly the guiding motif of the bible, the message to take home: Love God. Love others.

Stereotypically now a days Love letters are written at either the beginning of a relationship to inspire passion or to communicate during a long distance relationship. People I think forget how much more a love letter can be. An apology note can turn into a love letter, we can write love letters to someone even if we see them every day and have been with them for years. Also, we are not limited to writing love letters to the beloved- what about to children, sisters, friends and even strangers? I found this moving video about writing love letters to complete strangers. See below:

What if, every time someone struggled with addiction, they wrote a love letter instead? What if every time someone was angry, sad or lonely, they turned to write a letter to someone else? I remember writing so many letters back and forth with my cousin Jonathan when he was going through addiction. It is hard to know if they made a difference, but I was able to articulate to him that I loved him, that I wanted him for who he was beyond what he was struggling with. They for me are a residual spark of tenderness, symbolizing a robust relationship with my twin cousin.

So maybe today go out and write and/or read a love letter. Sweep up the joy and passion into a fresh articulation, and then share it with someone. Let the letter change you, and through that change become a gift to others. Let your letter be today the fuel for tangible joy and truth.